Hollande's Challenge Is Same in Syria and Paris
In a kebab shop in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis this morning, the split-screen images that the owner and I were watching on his TV drove home the symmetry between the challenges that French President Francois Hollande faces here and in Syria.
The left side of the screen showed police SWAT teams besieging terrorist suspects in an apartment just a few hundred meters from the restaurant. The right-hand side showed the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, steaming out of port on its way to join the fight against Islamic State in Syria. In both places, violence has grown in security vacuums. In both, Hollande's success will depend on finding a way to destroy Islamist terrorists without driving co-religionists into their arms.
That will be no easier here, just six miles from the Elysee Palace, than in Raqqa, where Hollande needs to figure out how to cooperate with Russia in destroying Islamic State without joining it in supporting the Syrian regime. President Bashar al-Assad's barrel-bombing of mainly Sunni civilians in Syria drives them straight into the arms of extremists, so to join him would be counter-productive.
In France, the problem is not that the citizens of Saint-Denis have any sympathy for terrorists. On the contrary. The only words I heard used to describe the men and women in the apartment -- one of whom blew herself up -- were "barbarians" and "savages." From there on, though, it gets more complicated.
Hollande has announced a raft of new security measures in response to last Friday's attacks in the center of Paris, which killed 129 people. That has wide support -- a poll in Wednesday's edition of the French daily Le Figaro found that 84 percent of respondents nationwide were willing to give up liberties in exchange for security. Saint-Denis is no different: It has the highest violent crime rate in the country, at 28.1 per 1,000 people a year, and is begging for more security.
The nagging question for people here as I wandered the neighborhood outside the police cordon, is this: Would the extra police and powers be used for the good of largely Muslim immigrants who live here, or would they instead become a target for the measures?
Almost everyone with whom I spoke began their comments by insisting, unprompted, that the terrorists being killed and arrested just around the corner were not Muslims. They knew, of course, that the alleged terrorists were Muslim, but were fearful that the wider French community will associate the twisted ideology of the terrorists with Islam, and Islam means them. They were anxious to make the distinction.
France's right-wing National Front party has advocated sealing the borders to migrants, allying with Assad in Syria, and proposed radical action to crush Islamist fundamentalism within France. The party's anti-Muslim agenda is thinly veiled -- indeed, Le Pen has spent recent years trying to purge her party of out-and-out neo-Nazis, including her father.
"I don't give a damn what Marine Le Pen has to say," Ayoub Alkma, a 37-year-old of Algerian descent said of the National Front's leader. Even so, Alkma said, in the center of Paris, where he works in a bakery, "I can see in peoples' eyes they are afraid of me."
So when Hollande says he plans to hire 5,000 additional police and gendarmes as well as 2,500 more prison staff, how will they be used? Up to 60 percent of inmates in French prisons are estimated to be Muslim, against 8 percent of the general population. Poverty and resentment in largely segregated communities such as Saint-Denis are rife. Friction between and youngsters and police in the banlieues has triggered riots in the past.
And yet there is an opportunity here for France. Friday's attacks were not only larger than the one on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January, but also different in type. Charlie Hebdo's crude cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad colored the response that many French Muslims had to the attacks on the magazine's editorial staff. The response as often as not was, "Killing is wrong, but…". This time all French, including Muslims, were targeted.
The Stade de France, which suicide bombers failed to enter during a France-Germany soccer match on Friday, looms directly over the Saint-Denis skyline. Muslims are strongly represented on the French squad and many in the crowd would have been Muslim, too. Then, on Monday morning, a suicide bomber blew herself up in Saint-Denis's town center.
"This has changed things," said Aisha, a 34-year-old travel agent, also of Algerian descent, who declined to give her family name. "People thought terrorist attacks were something that happened in Paris. But now it came here."
Right now, a major effort to improve security in the banlieues might be welcomed by the overwhelming majority of residents here, if it were done right. At a Bangladeshi-run corner store, the staff said they wanted Saint-Denis flooded with closed-circuit television cameras. Marie Rose, a customer from Mauritius, wanted regular police patrols, if only to clear away the youngsters who light up barbecues and marijuana spliffs in the street outside her home at night.
"If there's a problem, the police come, but then they disappear again," said Aisha.
It's in a security vacuum that extremists can thrive and hide. That's true in Syria and it's true in Saint-Denis. The very difficult trick Hollande must pull off is not just to help defeat Islamic State, but to do so by providing a sense of security to the communities on which the terrorist organization preys.
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